351 – The Centre

I didn’t get out much as a kid. I never have. I’m not someone who really enjoys going outside. It’s not as if I don’t enjoy bracing sea air or rolling countryside–if I were Julie Andrews I might include them in a song about my favourite things–but in the flesh (as it were) the great outdoors isn’t as picturesque as you might imagine. A day at a theme park might be ruined by wasps. Beach-side picnics often contains more sandy dog muck than you might hope for. Exhaustion, thirst, boredom–and that’s before you add weather into the mix. For thousands of years mankind sought solace beneath anything that might shelter them. First we hid under tree branches, then in natural caves, and then we built huts and houses so we might never be drenched in a rainstorm again.

The outside has no ceiling. In many places it has no firm floor, either. Rain pours, thunder rolls, and all of a sudden the meadow you were hiking across is transfigured into a bog. Muddy water seeps into the tops of your boots; the soft ground holds them as you try to pull yourself free. On a clement day going for a walk can be one of life’s simple pleasures, but typically it’s more like extricating yourself from a wasp-infected shoe-stealing hell.

As a child I soon learned to avoid school trips. Not all of them were bad but most were miserable feats of endurance that made a kid happy to go back to school. Trips to what passed for local theme parks were only fun so long as you didn’t end up tethered to a teacher’s wrist for daring to wander a few yards from the rest of the group. Trips to the beach were only tolerable so long as you didn’t fall into a rock pool.

While I was one of the few children in Mr. Hill’s class not to return home bedraggled with brine, days out to shingle beaches were altogether too educational for my liking. My friends and I could only take so much before we stopped classifying types of seaweed left along the tide line and started kicking anemones.

Actually, that’s a lie. I always abided by the laws for environmental conservation recited to us before we were allowed on the beach, which made it rankle even more when a classmate, seeing a beetle crushed to orange paste, pinned the blame on me. In a reserve where pulling crab grass from a sandbank was a capital crime, I’d have seemed less of a monster if I’d decapitated half the class netball team.

Seaweed counted, driftwood collected, I returned to the school in miserable silence.

At secondary school our field trips were few and far between, though we still found time to visit a shingle beach–perhaps the same one I’d visited years before–on an equally miserable day.

This was because every day that might otherwise have been spent researching types of lichen was saved for the annual trip to France most of the pupils went upon.

My school co-bought a youth hostel with the other grammar schools in the city. Each year on alternating fortnights, the three schools sent a class or two at a time out to France to soak up the culture and learn the language. They organised visits to local schools, and, well, I’m not sure what else they did because I never went.

For many of my classmates this was a right of passage. Away from their parents for the first time they played hooky, running to the local village with pockets full of francs to imbibe as much cheap wine as possible. There were also exotic local girls to meet, get off with and–quite possibly–sex up. It might be racist to say all French girl are loose but judging from the stories the lads came back with that was the most conservative thing you could say about them.

With most pupils in France classes were eerily quiet. Those of us who remained–those too poor to go on the trip and those few abstainers like myself–were rolled together with the remnants of one of the other classes, and taught half-heartedly by teachers who wished they were on the continent. Many of the usual troublemakers went on the trip; I maintain those who stayed behind learned more in our undisturbed French class than those who spent the fortnight abroad.

Unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to get out of another trip to an education centre. When I’d been much younger my mum had scared me with tales of her trip to Maker Camp, where she’d had a uniformly miserable experience, been the butt of her roommates’ jokes and worse, had her marshmallows stolen, then destroyed just to spite her. This along with a youth spent reading about boarding schools had quite put me off rooming with my classmates. Nevertheless, when it came time for us to go out to Dartmoor for the week, I couldn’t feign a painful enough stomach ache to get out of it: I would stay in the centre with everyone else and I’d jolly well enjoy it.

I didn’t and I can’t imagine that anyone did. We had the misfortune of being on the moors during one of its many rainy seasons, when snakes had thankfully burrowed out of striking distance but every other natural disaster that might befall us was in full effect. Lightning tore the sky. Fogs sank our temporary home into permanent darkness. Off the grid and wired to a tempermental generator, we couldn’t even rely upon electric light. The only thing the centre had going for it was a traditional log fire, built up when the whole class sat damp and knock-kneed in the living area and hypothermia was starting to become a concern.

As miserable as the setting was, the company was worse. Hiking uphill in drizzle was blessed relief next to being cooped inside with my classmates.When we weren’t looking at bronze age standing stones we were at one another’s throats, sometimes quite literally as in when a brawl between myself and another lad ended up with him trying to kick my head off my shoulders. Limping inside, cooed over by girls too timid to rough it with the lads, one of the teachers tried to soothe my woes with a tepid hot chocolate.

As for the bully, there wasn’t anything that could be done about him. The teachers couldn’t contact his parents because we were so far from civilisation and this being an educational trip, they couldn’t ground him to the centre without it seeming like a reward. In the end he was sent to his bed to think about what he’d done, then made to apologise and shake my hand–the absolute last thing I wanted to do.

Having read so many The Twins at St. Claire’s books I’d hoped there might be some respite from centre life in the form of midnight larder raids or something similar. To that end and with one of my friends celebrating his birthday while we were away, I packed a chocolate cake for us to scoff in secret in the dead of night.

Predictably word got out, the cake was confiscated, then cut into tiny slivers and shared among the whole class. This seemed desperately unfair to me; it still does. What right do teachers have, stealing away cakes from small boys to give out to the masses like a sweet-toothed communist dictator?

The one pleasant memory I have of our week on the moors was a dismal night upon which the teachers had the bright idea to tell ghost stories. Being full of gullible hicks our neck of the woods was famed for supernatural happenings. From the Beast of Bodmin Moor to the Devil’s Footprints, there was hardly a rock, hill or stream without some far-fetched tale attached to it.

Our story that night was about the infamous Hairy Hands, a pair of phantom appendages that steer unwary drivers off the road and push the unwitting off bridges. A teacher told the tale in as much gruesome detail as he could muster, and as knots popped in the fire and the wind whistled outside, the class leant forward as one, shivering and clutching one another for support.

Suddenly, as the story reached its climax, what should slap at the window but a large, hairy hand?

Straight away I was out of my seat and running for the window. Half sceptical, half as gullible as my fellow yokels, I wasn’t sure I believed in the hairy hands and felt sure this was a prank, but if the hands existed then I wanted to see them.

What I saw was one of our teachers wielding an inflated rubber glove tied to a stick. He was standing on a ledge outside the window; upon seeing me he fell off, recovered, and ran off into the night.

From behind came the wailing of a half-dozen or so inconsolable children, terrified by a Marigold. That was the highlight of my stay on Dartmoor.

I’ve shared so many school memories with this year and still have one or two up my sleeve. Though I think about my classmates–friends and bullies alike–from time to time it’s not often I wonder if they remember their schooldays the same way I do. I dodged most of the Friends Reunited crowd, interacting with only a few of my former classmates, none of whom remembered me. I apologised to the only person I’ve ever bullied, something I felt terrible about for years, and though she remembered that her schooldays were best forgotten, she’d forgotten the names and faces behind the name-calling.

It’s strange that my memories of this time are so vivid. I don’t choose for them to be this way; it’s simply how I find them, fossils complete and intact, so fresh they hardly seem to have aged at all. It’s as if, while every other child moved on into adulthood, I became stuck.

I wonder if anyone else remembers those days and whether they think of them fondly, with regret or with ambivalence.

I assume both centres are still standing; they probably aren’t. I assume the beach is still open to junior beach-combers but like Kent’s Cavern, the Shire Horse centre and so many other places in my past it, too might now be closed to the public.

As tainted as they are with pain and melancholy, whatever happens to these places at least I have memories.


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